TOLEDO — On Sundays at Epworth United Methodist Church, if a congregant isn’t straightening her choir robe in a hallway, she might be shooting pool or playing ping-pong. If he isn’t filing into the sanctuary for the traditional worship service, he might be grabbing a doughnut for himself and a friend.
The latter is pretty standard at the Deep End, the youth-oriented gathering space that the church introduced within a broader expansion that doubled the size of the church on Central Avenue in September. It’s where high school students arrange themselves on cushioned stools about the same time that the service starts upstairs for their own conversation on faith and Scripture.
“I like it because it kind of sets my week off to a good start,” said Alex Olzak, a sophomore at Northview High School and a youth ministry regular at Epworth. “Everyone here is super welcoming and friendly. I think some of my closest friends are here.”
The new space underscores the way that the church prioritizes youth ministry, as do many area faith communities that invite middle and high school students to participate in weekly gatherings or less frequent trips geared toward service or fellowship. In some cases it’s the open lines of communication throughout the week that leaders identify as the heart of their ministries.
Nationally, 6 in 10 senior pastors describe youth ministry as “one of the top priorities” in their church, according to a survey conducted by Barna in 2016. Seven percent of respondents went further in identifying youth ministry as their single highest priority.
The same study identified discipleship and spiritual instruction as the overwhelming priority, in terms of the purpose of youth ministries. Building relationships also came in high.
Such priorities mirror those identified by local youth leaders, who also acknowledge that they often step into students’ lives when they’re beginning to take ownership of their faith, or, in some cases, lack thereof. That positions youth ministries as an outlet for students to explore, to ask questions and to work out for themselves what they believe and what that means for their lives.
Chris Light is the area director for West Toledo Young Life, a youth ministry that is not affiliated with a specific church. He said this developing sense of autonomy is integral to Young Life.
“Coming alongside them at that age is strategic,” he said. “You’re becoming an adult and you’re able to start having your own ideas and thoughts.”
Youth ministries generally aim to support teens as they develop or grow in a relationship with God, and, in this, Generation Z might pose a particular challenge: A separate 2018 Barna study identifies this demographic, which covers those born between 1999 and 2015, as the first “post-Christian” generation.
They’re less likely than any previous generation to assert a religious identity, according to the study. More than half the teens who responded describe church involvement as “not too” or “not at all” important to them.
If parents or grandparents don’t practice or prioritize faith, it follows that a child doesn’t either. Deacon Joe Malenfant, who oversees discipleship and family life for the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, said he’s seen that pattern play out over time in his line of work.
Northpoint Church Senior Pastor Brad Wotring has picked up on it, too. He’s been in full-time ministry since 1990 and said he’s seen more youth and adults coming to the church without any real background in Christianity in just the last five years or so.
“It’s kind of a new experience,” he said.
But generational trends also aren’t always obvious at the local level, where youth leaders said they’ve long worked both with teens who have grown up in the church and with teens who come to it for the first time through a youth ministry.
Count Alex Olzak, Ethan Watson, and Preston Baker among the former. Before the 16-year-olds were huddling over a Bible in the Deep End, they were attending preschool and participating in children’s ministries at Epworth.
If those children’s ministries taught them and others about their faith, youth ministries are pushing them to look a little closer at what they learned.
“It’s really encouraging them to ask those questions, for them to dive into that faith on their own,” said the Rev. Dave Pettengill, who’s the pastor of student and family ministers at Epworth. “[It’s] not me dictating, ‘This is what you have to believe.’ Let’s look at this together, let’s grow together, let’s ask questions together. It’s a journey.”
Other youth leaders spoke similarly. Adolescence and autonomy aren’t a threat to faith, but a valuable opportunity to either develop beliefs or examine long-held ones through new eyes.
Youth ministries can help navigate that transition.
“We really want kids to start having ownership of Christianity,” Pastor Wotring said, “rather than just saying that they attend church because their family or their parents attend church.”
Each youth ministry looks a little different, in terms of when youth meet and what happens when they do. But often the relationships that come out of them are integral.
Ryan Stoller and Bethany Baker, who co-lead the youth ministry at Northpoint Church, said they’re regularly getting coffee with the students in their youth ministry or cheering them on at high school basketball games and diving competitions.
The students have access to their and other youth leaders’ cell phone numbers any time. That means there’s back-and-forth beyond the guided conversations on Sundays. Leaders become broader models of how to live one’s faith, as well as trusted mentors when issues might arise.
“Anxiety, stress,” Mr. Stoller said. “Christ offers an answer to those things.”
At Epworth United Methodist Church on Sunday, the camaraderie among the students is still apparent even after they put down the pool sticks and ping-pong paddles and settle in for the morning’s discussion. A little harmless horsing-around continues as students skim through the Scripture passages for the day.
(They’re invited to attend a worship service before or after youth ministry too.)
Students said they like the new space, which is an upgrade from the classrooms where they had been gathering prior to the expansion. The irregularly-shaped stools, the high-top tables and the pool table make it a fun place to hang out.
But it’s important to take what they do in there outside, too, Pastor Pettengill said. He pointed to the name of the church’s youth ministry, SWAT, which stands for Students With A Task.
“Each teen has been given a task and has a mission to know God, to love God, to serve God,” he said from a high-top table in the Deep End. “Really, we want to use this space to equip them to do that.”